How are you feeling right now, at this moment in your career?
I’m in a really good place right now, both personally and professionally. That’s a good sign. That’s what this is all about, keeping yourself in good condition, playing to the best of your abilities. And today I think I can say that I feel really good and am in a position to keep giving my best for the team.
You’re into your 15thseason at Real Madrid. What’s been the secret to your success? How’ve you managed to stay at the top for so long?
The secret is hard work. Dedication and not losing focus or ambition. That’s fundamental. It’s tough, but if you can reset yourself every season to keep fighting, win trophies and to keep up that attitude of wanting to win new titles, that’s really important. Looking after myself and keeping in the best shape possible is always at the forefront of my mind. You learn new things every year so there’s always room to improve. That’s what you have to focus on, to keep improving to make the most of the situation you’re in.
You’ve changed a lot since you arrived here at Real Madrid. You’re now club captain and the point of reference for the team. How do you deal with being in that position?
For me, representing and captaining this club is a privilege. It makes me very, very proud. Being here so many years is a growing process. You grow with experience; with all the games you play over the years. Good and bad experiences. It’s an honour to wear the Real Madrid’s captain’s armband and to know that you’re an example to thousands of children, to your teammates. It’s a great responsibility, so I try to act as best I can, not only for my teammates but also so that the whole Real Madrid family can be proud of their captain.
Let’s talk about this season. What do you, as Real Madrid captain, make of the season until now?
I think the team has grown as the season has gone on. Things are harder at the start of the season but with time you get up to where you need to be not only physically but also emotionally. We’re here to fight until the end, we really want to win the LaLiga title this season. We’re on the right track, we just have to keep working and maintain our work ethic. From there we’ll see how the results pan out, but we have to give as much of ourselves as we can. We’ve worked hard to find the right balance, both in defence and attack. That’s what we’ve got to maintain. Ultimately, the small details make all the difference. LaLiga is harder ever year, more evenly balanced than ever. You can’t say that you’re going to win in every stadium you play anymore. That’s not the case. Every single team can cause you problems. The level is higher every day, winning is increasingly difficult. But that’s what’s so great about LaLiga, it makes it so much more exciting and means it’ll taste even sweeter if we can win it this year.
Talking about Zidane. What’s the philosophy he looks to instil in you? What’s he like?
Zidane is a fantastic coach. Not just because of the statistics and all the trophies we’ve won with him, but also because he was here for many years as a player. He works the dressing room very well. He’s privileged in that sense; he lived it as a player, and now he manages it as a coach. Not everyone can do it as naturally as he does, in my opinion. He gets on well with everyone in the squad, regardless of whether they’re playing regularly or not. He keeps everyone motivated. That’s one of Zizou’s greatest strengths. He knows exactly what he can ask and expect of each player. I think he’s the ideal coach for a club like Real Madrid. Hopefully he’s here for many more years because we’re all behind him. We’re delighted with him at the helm and hopefully we can live another spell of title-winning with him.
You keep making history at Real Madrid. You’ve played more ElClasico matches (43) than anyone else in history. It’s the biggest game in the world. It’s the biggest competition in the world. What does that achievement mean to you?
It’s a privilege. It’s also a reward for years and years of hard work and sacrifice. We don’t play football for the individual awards but personal achievements like these are really satisfying. Breaking records set by players who previously set records we believed would remain unbroken for ever is a real source of motivation, too. It makes me even more driven to keep working and breaking new ground, in this case the ElClasico appearance record. As I said, it makes me very happy and hopefully I can continue to play more Clasicos as that would mean I’ll stay here for many years. And if we can win them, even better. ElClasico isn’t a normal match. They’re very difficult matches and if I can keep the memory of winning in my final years as a player that would be great.
15 years on, how has your approach to these games changed? I imagine you went in to your first one with a lot of nerves and that you now approach these games with a different mindset.
I don’t know. I don’t know whether maybe when you’re young you don’t give things so much thought. As the years go on, you become more experienced, but you also think about things like ElClasico more than you used to. As far as I’m concerned, I’m just as excited about these games as I was years ago. I don’t play as if it were my last Clasico, I play as if it were my first, with the same ambition and desire to win. As we all know, it’s not a normal game. Even though it’s three points just like every other game, beating Barcelona is huge and a really big emotional boost for us. It’s the same for them.
If you had to pick one LaLiga ElClasico from all the ones you’ve played, which would it be?
The year we won the double, a couple of years back with Zizou. We were 1-0 down at the Camp Nou and I equalised in the final minutes with a header from a Luka Modric free kick. It was a crucial point in the league race, we ended up champions months later away at Malaga. It was a really important goal that won us a title. That ElClasico may not have been one of the most important or high-profile ones but definitely one I remember.
You talked about the importance of ElClasico, but what goes through your mind minutes before you step out onto the pitch, and even the whole week before facing Barcelona?
The whole week before – unless there’s a Champions League or Cup game in between – is different. The media are really active, not necessarily putting pressure on you but definitely generating a lot of coverage. That’s what makes it such a big game, what makes our league and our players so important. It’s a great thing to experience. I try to step back a bit, stay focused and prepare the same way and go out onto the pitch as motivated as ever. But it’s true that in those games your emotions are driven by what you feel on the inside. It’s hard to explain but hopefully I’ll continue to experience those feelings for many years to come.
How do feel Sunday’s ElClasico will pan out?
It will be very tight. The points difference between both sides is minimal and the result could be decisive this season. But there’s still a long way to go, there are still a lot of points up for grabs and anything can happen. But a win would be huge for us, playing at home in front of our fans. That gives us extra motivation and satisfaction; together with them we’re stronger. Our rivals have to feel that, and so do we when we’re out there on the pitch. Hopefully we can make a statement with a win at home.
I have to ask about a duel we’re lucky to be watching between two world-class players, Sergio Ramos vs Messi. What’s it like to be part of that head-to-head?
I have huge respect for him [Lionel Messi]. I think he’s one of the greatest players in history and I have huge respect for him. I hope Sunday isn’t his day, that would mean we’ve done our job, and if on top of that we can get a good result even better. I wish him all the best as a fellow professional but only as long as it doesn’t affect us negatively! It’s hard, but he has my maximum respect, I think he’s one of the best.
How can you cause this Barcelona side problems?
We’ve played them many times, so we know how to trouble them. Barcelona are a team who keep possession a lot. They’re most uncomfortable when you try to take it from them. Everyone knows that, not just Real Madrid. Putting pressure on them high up is risky but it causes them problems. Before it didn’t happen so much, maybe because teams gave them too much respect and they would play the ball out from the back really well. But I think that’s the key: pressure high up the pitch and try to steal the ball from them, that’s when they’re most uncomfortable. There’s always the risk that up top they’ve got very dangerous players who can be decisive in ElClasico. Hopefully it doesn’t come to that, that we maintain our concentration from the first minute until the last and that things turn out as we want them to.
There’s a long way to go but do you think this ElClasico can be decisive in the LaLiga title race? The two teams are so close together in the table.
I have my doubts. There are still a lot of points on the table from now until the end of the season, and we’ve seen that from the first half of the season. We dropped points both home and away, so did Barcelona. That makes for a better LaLiga race, more competitive. That difficulty is what makes it so exciting. So, I don’t think the three points against Barcelona will be completely decisive but obviously on an emotional level they’ll be really important to us.
What are the team’s objectives this season?
Our objective is to win, keep winning and not get tired of winning. That’s the Real Madrid philosophy. Given that we’ve already won a title this season, the Spanish Super Cup, we want to finish the campaign by winning some more. LaLiga and the Champions League, we know it’s very difficult but we’re in the right frame of mind. In football anything can happen, but we have to fight until the end, keep up the final push and keep working as people expect us to. We’ll do all we can and hopefully we can end the season lifting the trophies. Ultimately that’s what makes the difference in football.